In the Gospel stories about the risen Jesus meeting with his friends, there’s a fascinating paradox about the nature of his body. It’s clear that there is something beyond ordinary embodiment here. The risen Jesus can pass through locked doors, and turn up in unexpected locations. He has a habit of not looking like himself until, quite suddenly, he does. It’s tempting to read all this through the lens of science fiction and hypothesize that the risen Jesus gained the power to rearrange his own atoms at will.
On the other hand, the witnesses to the Resurrection take care to tell us that what they saw isn’t some intangible spirit. He can be held and touched. You could put your finger in his wounds, if you felt the need to do so. He eats food. I love the specificity of the boiled fish, here!
The resurrected body of Jesus is not entirely like our bodies, but it also *is* a lot like our bodies. It was important to Jesus to show that to his friends and followers, and it was important to them to pass it on to us. Ghosts and spirits were familiar concepts in that time and place; there’s a story in Acts where someone sees Paul and thinks she’s seeing Paul’s ghost. But the witnesses to the resurrection are clear that that’s not what this is.
Presbyterian pastor, blogger and Bible scholar Mark Davis writes, “It would be so easy just to say that death releases us from the confines of the body and allows our spirits to be free as the wind. That would have been compatible with the popular Greek notions of the mind/body or spirit/body relationship. It would give credence to popular current notions about the body as some kind of shell with which we are stuck for a time, to be released one day. But, that’s not what the gospels say. The risen Christ is the embodied Christ.”
The witnesses tell us: we touched him. We embraced him. We shared a meal with him. We felt his breath on our faces. We were joyful, and doubtful, and we had so many questions. But there he was. He was there.
I enjoy the hint in today’s Gospel that Jesus was actually kind of hungry. And that the disciples just stood around and gaped at him while he ate! And then – he wants to talk to them about the Bible. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. He wants to help them know that – as he says in Mark’s Gospel – our God is a God of the living. That God has always been bringing life from death.
Davis writes, “The rise and fall of kingdoms, the suffering and return of exiles, the despair of the suffering servant, the hope of the one “coming in clouds,” the expectation of Elijah’s return—all are stories of how inasmuch as God lives, so do God’s promises. Resurrection makes all the difference between seeing the Scriptures as accounts of things that happened but are not happening any more; and accounts of things that happened and marvelously continue to be happening because God lives.”
Jesus wants to help his friends understand that the new faith being born in their hearts and minds is compatible with the faith of their ancestors, with God’s work with and through God’s chosen people Israel. After all, at every Easter Vigil, we hear the prophet Ezekiel sharing God’s promise to bring Israel up out of their graves and give them new life!
But there’s more here. Because Resurrection faith isn’t just about God; it’s also about us – and the world we live in. Richard Swanson writes, “The Resurrected Messiah eats. That implies that Resurrection works out its meaning in the real world, not in heaven. Stop and think about that. The Resurrected Messiah engages the real, physical, earthly, social, political, economic, complicated world.”
That’s not always how we think and speak about resurrection – about life after death. Often Christians speak as if life beyond the grave lessens the value, the importance, of life before the grave. Life on this earth becomes nothing more than a pilgrimage or a passageway to that ultimate destination. At its most extreme, this mindset leads to the idea that things like environmental crisis and systemic injustice don’t matter. Because this world is not the point.
But that mindset – I believe – is unfaithful to the God who created this world, in its beauty and complexity. To the God who spoke to Moses from a burning bush and did NOT say, “Tell my people to put up with their enslavement; it doesn’t matter, because they’ll be free and happy after they die.” It’s unfaithful to Jesus, who healed. And fed. And ate.
Davis writes, “[Seeing Scripture and world through the lens of] resurrection is not a fatalistic capitulation to the inevitable death of all things. It increases the value of life—life of the earth, life of the community, even life of the enemy—because where there is life, there is God.”
Thinking about life from death as a theme throughout Scripture makes me think of another thread woven through the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments alike: the many repetitions of the words, Don’t be afraid. Fear not. Or sometimes: Take courage. Take heart. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says: Why are you frightened?
If God’s purposes in the world consistently involve bringing life from death, turning endings into beginnings, then it makes sense that one of God’s core messages for humanity is: It’s going to be OK. You don’t have to be so afraid.
Where does fear hold us back from new possibilities for rebirth and renewal?
Fear of a diverse and multiethnic America drives white supremacist violence, and keeps refugee children imprisoned at our southern border.
Fear of changing understandings of gender, biology, and self are feeding anti-transgender legislation in many states that will wound and kill.
Fear of what people like me, historically privileged by virtue of our whiteness, might lose, holds us back from a real reckoning with the past and work towards meaningful reparations.
Fear of having to radically change our way of life, our constant casual consumption, keeps us paralyzed in the face of climate disaster.
Fear and failure of imagination about other ways to order our common life hold us bound to models of policing that consistently inflict senseless violence on black and brown bodies. George, Breonna, Duante, Tony… so many.
I’m not shaming anyone for having those fears. I share many of them.
Psalm 4 speaks truly: Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” What if we believed that where there is life, there is God? Really believed it? What if God has the power, working with and through and among us, to bring about better futures? Futures of possibility beyond the fears that bind and burden us?
Why are you frightened? asks Jesus, and then, Do you have anything here to eat? His friends give him some fish and he bites, and chews, and swallows. And they stand around and watch: joyful, half-disbelieving, still wondering. He is real and impossible, familiar and strange. He is alive, a living body in the same real, physical, earthly, social, political, economic, complicated world that we share. And his triumph over death which is also our triumph over death is not to free us from the complicated world, beloveds, but to free us for it.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Mark Davis, “The Politics of Resurrection Hermeneutics”
Mark Davis, “Opening their minds to the Scriptures,” https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/04/opening-their-minds-to-scriptures.html
Richard Swanson, “A Provocation: Third Sunday of Easter,” https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/a-provocation-third-sunday-of-easter-april-15-2018-luke-2436b-48/